wed 18/09/2019

The Town | reviews, news & interviews

The Town

The Town

Ben Affleck's second feature fails to get beyond a ludicrous premise

'The Town': a high-budget game of cops and robbers

Welcome to Charlestown, a Boston neighbourhood of just one square mile that has produced more bank robbers than anywhere else in America. Here crime is a “trade” passed down from father to son, and the height of ambition is to serve your inevitable jail time “like a man”. It’s a setting grubbily familiar from the cinematic likes of Mystic River and The Departed, as well as Ben Affleck’s own directorial debut Gone Baby Gone; now it plays host to his sophomore effort The Town, a heist drama with a heart.

Sadly, for all its macho posturing and gun-toting promise, The Town turns out to be as clean-cut as its hero, and about as convincing. Following in the heavily trodden footsteps of the “one last job” crime genre, Affleck himself stars as Doug MacRay, the brains behind Charlestown’s most efficient robbery gang. Helped and hindered in equal measure by volatile ex-con Jem (Jeremy Renner) and his posse, MacRay is determined to get out of the crime business and put Charlestown in his “rear-view mirror”. When he takes bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) hostage and falls for her demure charms, it persuades him to make the break and become the man she believes him to be.

The premise is wildly implausible, and it’s a weakness that proves fatal. Failing to recognise MacRay as her masked attacker, the traumatised Claire opens up to him freely and immediately during a passing encounter in a Laundromat, welcoming this impassive and strangely charmless man into her life without question. His awkward attempts to pump information from her drew laughter from the audience, exposing a script that aims for drama with elements of black comedy, but lands somewhat wide of the mark.

With cameos from Pete Postlethwaite (as Irish mob boss Fergie “The Florist”) and Mad Men’s Jon Hamm (unencumbered by any discernible personality as tenacious FBI agent Adam Frawley) helping to raise the stakes, The Town has all the makings of a solid procedural. It squanders them however on a plot in which men are either cops or robbers, women either meth whores or nice, middle-class girls.

The one exception is Doug himself, whose tensions (we learn) come from the brief taste of the wholesome life of pro hockey that was cruelly snatched from him. Yet for all his brooding, wooden gaze, Affleck is simply not dangerous enough. He recalls a drug-ruined past, but his complexion speaks of nothing stronger than the occasional Lemsip. Set against the thuggish and menacing frame of Jeremy Renner’s Jem, Affleck looks like the country cousin visiting the big city for the weekend.

Quick on its feet, the film does flourish during action sequences. Car chases, gunfights and bank sieges are all tackled with destructive gusto (and some of the most disturbing masks since the Scream franchise). With detail lavished upon elaborate costumes and plans of attack, the film has much of the Boy’s Own fantasy about it, with violence an unfortunate bi-product rather than an end in itself. All the gritty confusion and ambiguity of Gone Baby Gone is jettisoned in favour of rather smoother moral going, with a cheeky smile and a sob story enough currency to buy romantic redemption from any crime.

There is fertile material enough in Boston’s criminal communities to keep film-makers in business indefinitely, but for Affleck it is a seam mined dry. Where his first feature was complicated and uneasy, The Town is inoffensively mainstream, lacking the courage to fire anything but blanks at either audience or subject matter.

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